Why people are so fascinated by Jeong Do-jeon

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Why people are so fascinated by Jeong Do-jeon


Choi Sang-yong, an expert who specializes in the life of politician Jeong Do-jeon, poses near Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. The name of its main gate, Gwanghwamun, was given by Jeong. By Kwon Hyeok-jae

Why are Koreans suddenly crazy about Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398), a politician who lived 600 years ago?

The historical drama of the same name that began airing in January has been enjoying significant popularity since its first episode. Riding on the drama’s popularity, books about Jeong have recently been released one right after another, first with “Jeong Do-jeon and His Times,” then “Jeong Do-jeon” and “Jeong Do-jeon and the Foundation Story of the Joseon Dynasty.”

Jeong was pretty much the architect behind the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), helping Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408) build the new dynasty and become its first ruler, King Taejo. However, Jeong died just six years after the foundation of Joseon, killed by Yi Bang-won (1367-1422), the son of King Taejo, in a political struggle.

As is usually the case, history is written by the winners - and Jeong was not one of them, which is why, until now, the public and academics weren’t interested in Jeong.

The JoongAng Ilbo met with Choi Sang-yong, a leading Jeong Do-jeon expert. Choi, who studied politics in the West, wrote a book about Jeong in 2007. Choi, who is currently an emeritus professor at Korea University, served as the ambassador to Japan between 2000 and 2002, among other positions.

Choi says Jeong lived an era when people suffered from corrupt politics and an extreme income gap, adding that “he was a political thinker incomparable to his counterparts at the time.”

Q. Was Jeong Do-jeon a politician or a scholar?

A. No one will deny it when I say that Jeong was the best Confucian and neo-Confucian scholar of the time. He left many literary pieces that feature a free mind, yet sharp social consciousness, as well as volumes on political philosophy where his vision for a new country is evident. He also left some publications on military science. However, his life was deeply rooted in politics. That is why I often compare him to Dante Alighieri [1265-1321], who was an Italian poet with political passions, who envisioned the future of a modern country.

Would you say that Jeong is a hero created by the chaos of the final years of Goryeo?

The final years of Goryeo can certainly be described as a time of crisis. Revolutionary changes were called for. It is typical that, in times of transition, we witness the breakdown of the economy, a corruption of morals and an overturning of the balance of power, among other things. At that time, land distribution was conducted unfairly and middle-class farmers were suffering. Also, Buddhism - which was the ideological basis for Goryeo - was extremely corrupt. In such a crisis, Jeong carried out his work with his own beliefs and convictions.

For instance, he only took on several parts of the ideas of Mencius, a Chinese philosopher [372-289 BC], although most scholars at that time fully adopted the ideas. He also attempted to criticize certain ideas of Buddhism. Most notable of all is that he called for strong military power to achieve an ideal Confucian country. Although neo-Confucian is often associated with literary indulgence, to the neglect of the military arts, he was a realist who knew that politics called for strong military power.

What was Jeong’s idea of a “good country”?

He dreamed of a country whose spiritual basis was neo-Confucianism, which was a “hot” political ideology at that time, and that had a prime minister and a strong, bureaucratic cabinet. Through such a political system, he attempted to solve the problems facing average people. Although he believed in democracy from early on, as seen in the drama, that belief grew stronger during the 10-year period of his exile, when he experienced first-hand the impoverished lives of average people.

Although it’s true that the power of the prime minister is only limited under a monarchy, monarchy was a given at that time. He had no choice. A king can be a good king or not. But Jeong envisioned a complementary ruling system, when a good prime minister could work with the king. He had several ideas on what makes a good prime minister, but he believed the beauty of politics was in personnel and considered selecting the right people the foremost duty of a prime minister.

The design may have been good, but eventually Joseon collapsed, a corrupt and incompetent dynasty. Doesn’t that mean Joseon was a failure?

I think it is a prejudice that Joseon was corrupt and incompetent, and that prejudice stems from the final years of the dynasty, which was also a time of crisis. For about a century after its foundation, Joseon was a small country in terms of its economy, but there was peace in the monarch and stability in commoners’ life. That is why, even though Yi Bang-won killed Jeong Do-jeon to solidify his standing in politics, he continued to abide by Jeong’s design of the Joseon Dynasty.

That is why I believe Jeong was a successful revolutionist, and I don’t believe Joseon was a failed model. Even if you look at world history, it’s extremely rare for a dynasty to last more than 500 years. A dynasty can only do that through a balance between monarchy, or royal authority, and theocracy, or divine right. I advise people not to judge Joseon only by its corrupt and incompetent final moments.

Why do you think Koreans today are so enthusiastic about Jeong Do-jeon?

Korea is in a transitional period at the moment. It is suffering from polarization and there is a constant struggle between the forces of habit and reform. Korean society today is similar to the final years of Goryeo also because its key task is improving the lives of average people. What we need at the moment is to have leadership with a firm philosophy, strategy and the drive to translate that into action. Listening to a message from 600 years ago couldn’t hurt.

BY LEE YEONG-HEE [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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